An inherent part of who Clettis Williams is can be traced to Feb. 16, 1951.
On that day, the 17-year-old ran 20 miles barefoot to escape thousands of Chinese troops after being hit by a hand grenade during the Korean War.
When he finally found a pair of shoes and a seat aboard a U.S. tank, his feet were frostbitten and his elbow was full of shrapnel.
His pride, however, could not have been stronger. For his actions, Maj. Gen. LaWarren V. Patterson, the commanding general at Fort Gordon, awarded a Purple Heart to Williams – now 81 and a retired Army sergeant first class – during Augusta’s annual Veterans Day ceremony at the city’s All Wars Monument in Olde Town.
Patterson said Williams, a resident of Jackson, truly embodied the Army’s Soldier’s Creed for remaining mentally and physically tough despite extreme circumstances.
“For more than two centuries, veterans of our nation have been willing to serve and to sacrifice for a country and a cause they love more than their own lives,” Patterson said before bestowing the military’s oldest honor for valor on Williams, who was in full uniform. “This has not changed, and that is why we are here today – to celebrate the strength, courage and dedication of our veterans who not only won our wars, but also shaped the world for peace.”
Williams said he knew he would receive the award, but not in front of 300 people during a ceremony that included memorial wreaths, a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps.
“For me, it was more of a surprise,” said Williams, who joined the Army at 17 to prove to his father that he could straighten out his life after being expelled from high school. “I am very proud to be a veteran today. This country loves its heroes, and to me, that means so much.”
During the city’s parade down Broad Street, military drill teams twirled rifles and threw them into the air; camouflaged Humvees rolled past carrying veterans from the Vietnam War; and high school marching bands played the Army and Air Force songs.
“There are not many people here beside veterans,” said Eleanor Weatherford, 77, a 20-year Air Force nurse who served two tours in Vietnam.
Metro Augusta is home to about 10 percent of Georgia’s 775,000 veterans; only about 300 people lined Broad Street to watch the parade. The spectators included Holiday Inn Express construction workers, Wells Fargo bank tellers and convenience store clerks who watched from job sites.
“Every day is my day, but today is extra special. I am a little disappointed by the low turnout,” said Weatherford, who cared for and fed orphans and wounded service members while deployed to Cam Rahn Air Base in Vietnam.
“Our mission was to save lives, and we did that with great honor,” she said.
Patterson commended the service of those in attendance Monday and challenged everyone in the audience to remember three things: veterans are service members for life, the U.S. Department of Defense is committed to their lifelong success and the federal government needs the help of its citizens to fulfill that pledge.
Tara Hampton, 41, a retired soldier who served from 1989-97, said her life depends on that commitment. She began her military disability payments this year for degenerative joint disease, and her daughter, Jasmine Burkes, a 16-year-old sophomore enrolled in the Cross Creek High School Junior ROTC, is considering enlisting in the Army.
Hampton said the Veterans Day parade and the recruitment papers her daughter recently received brought back memories of her days driving Humvees, piloting military aircraft and jumping out of helicopters overseas.
Jasmine said the stories inspired her.
“It’s a great feeling to want to join the Army for the discipline and to show patriotism,” the teenager said.
Hampton said her daughter’s commitment shows America’s future is still strong.
“It all goes back to the saying, ‘All gave some and some gave all,’ ” Hampton said. “It reminds us that freedom isn’t free and for that, I don’t mind one bit passing the torch.”